The USS Bonhomme Richard is steaming toward the site of the South Korean passenger ship Sewol, which sank roughly 60 miles offshore after running aground in shallow water Wednesday morning, authorities said. The emergency has sparked a scramble to save as many of the 450 people who were on board as possible. At least four are dead and some 284 passengers -- many of the children -- remain unaccounted for, raising fears that they may be trapped below the Sewol's deck as it takes on water.
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could launch a variety of helicopters to respond to the deadly ferry disaster off the southern tip of South Korea, using the Bonhomme Richard, a 40,000-ton warship, as a base from which to help in the crisis, U.S. military officials said Wednesday. But with hypothermia a significant threat to stranded passengers, there is a tight window of time in which survivors may be saved.
Frigid temperatures make it unlikely that passengers could survive long in the water, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War and former Navy helicopter pilot. The water in the area where the ship sank is about 54 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning hypothermia will set in quickly for wet passengers still trapped on the ship, and even more swiftly for anyone floating nearby.
The Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship, routinely carries hundreds of U.S. Marines and sailors and was on a routine patrol in waters west of the Korean peninsula when the emergency began, Navy officials said. South Korean authorities already have launched helicopters and rescue boats and deployed military divers and other personnel, but the U.S. military is standing by to assist if requested.
If called upon, the Bonhomme Richard carries a variety of equipment that could prove useful to the rescue, including MH-60 Seahawk helicopters, MV-22 tilt-rotor Ospreys, and small boats that could be launched to perform search and rescue operations. The Osprey, which can take off like a helicopter and fly as quickly as a plane, could ferry passengers back to shore swiftly.
Harmer said launching a rescue operation would be relatively routine for U.S. troops if they're called upon to help. They frequently train to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, he said, and have a close relationship with the governments in both Seoul and nearby Japan that could prove helpful. Other ships, including minesweepers and salvage vessels, are based about 100 miles away in Sasebo, Japan, and could search the water for passengers and be used as a base from which to cut into the capsized ship and get people out.
Where the crisis gets even more complicated is if scores or hundreds of people are indeed still trapped in the ship as it takes on water. Unlike some military vessels and submarines, a commercial ferry doesn't have areas in which passengers can isolate themselves and breathe while other sections are cut into by rescue crew, allowing water to rush in.
"There's a very high probability that there are still people left alive trapped in the water," Harmer said. "It's something else entirely to get them out. When you're dealing with submarines, they are built with escape hatches. They're designed from the inside out to have an escape and egress system from underwater. A ferry like this is not designed that way, and the children on board obviously aren't trained in that. I imagine they're doing everything they can out there to get some divers down there... to try to see if there is any way to get in and rescue, but that's going to be a very challenging operation."
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